Type 1 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in children. It isn't caused by what your child eats or other lifestyle decisions, and children have no control over whether they develop the condition or not. But while type 1 diabetes is not caused by diet, certain foods affect blood sugar in different ways, and it's important to be mindful of what you eat.
Like all children, children with type 1 diabetes benefit from a diet that offers maximum nutrition – one that is filled with foods containing vitamins, minerals and nutrient-dense foods. To maintain healthy blood sugar levels, it's important for children with diabetes to be aware of foods and drinks that contain carbohydrates.
How do foods affect blood sugar?
Some foods affect your child's blood sugar directly, causing it to rise. Other foods can affect levels indirectly. By understanding how foods are affecting your child's blood sugar, you can help them keep it in a healthy range.
Foods that directly impact blood sugar because they contain carbohydrates include:
- Grains like bread, rice and pasta
- Some dairy products like milk or yogurt
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn
- Sugary foods like candy or desserts
When you eat these foods, your digestive system breaks them down into sugar that enters your bloodstream. Insulin helps use up the sugar and lower your blood sugar levels again.
Healthy proteins like lean meats and eggs, and fats like butter and olive oil, only minimally affect blood sugar. However, these foods can slow down digestion which has an indirect effect. That means your child's body absorbs sugar more slowly, which can change the amount and timing of insulin a child with diabetes might need.
Be aware of sugar-free and fat-free foods
Many people mistakenly think that sugar-free foods don't contain carbohydrates. However, these foods are often still high in carbohydrates, even if they aren't sugars. They may also contain sugar alcohols, which still raise blood sugar.
Fat-free foods can also be higher in carbohydrates. To make up for the lack of fat, many of these foods use a high amount of sugar to create flavor. If you aren't sure what is in your child's food, always check the nutrition label for the number of carbohydrates.
What are the diet recommendations for type 1 diabetes?
The American Diabetes Association recommends the same healthy diet for children who have type 1 diabetes as those who don't. Eating adequate calories for your child to grow and develop appropriately is the primary goal of adequate nutrition. While your child doesn't have to avoid any particular foods, you'll want to keep these tips in mind:
- Avoid sugary drinks. Instead, choose water. There are many sparkling waters available that have minimal carbohydrates or sugar substitutes. Also, try infusing your water with fresh fruits and herbs to help give flavor, but not add extra calories or sugar. Crystal Light, sugar-free lemonades or unsweetened teas are options, but should not be your primary hydration source.
- Don't let your child skip meals as this can cause them to overeat at the next meal.
- Even if your child is trying to lose weight, they should never skip a meal. They should only reduce portion sizes.
- Increase daily fiber to help overall blood sugar control as well as many other health benefits
- Choose healthy carbohydrates at every meal and try to pair them with a fat and protein. Healthy carbohydrate examples are whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal and fruit.
What are healthy foods for a child with type 1 diabetes?
There are many healthy foods your child can eat to help manage blood sugar levels. Eating a wide variety of foods is important. These healthy foods and snacks include:
- Vegetables prepared in many ways, including steamed, roasted, in a salad or dipped in dressing or hummus
- Fresh fruits with peanut/other nut butter
- Dairy products such as cheese or Greek yogurt
- Eggs prepared any way your child prefers
- Lean meats including poultry and fish
- Beans, nuts and seeds
- Whole wheat crackers with low-fat cheese
- High fiber cereal
Work with your child to try new foods and find the foods they love. By involving children in their meal planning decisions, you can help them feel good about their healthy habits.
The Pediatric Diabetes Program at Children's Health℠ offers around-the-clock care for children with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Our award-winning program gives you and your child the tools you need to live the lives you want, even with diabetes. Learn more about our program and services.